How the International Committee of the Red Cross Uses Technology

Published:  June 19, 2012
ICRC Haiti

Port-au- Prince, Canape Vert district. ICRC initiates restoration of family links to residents living in tents. People are offered satellite phone connection in order to contact family members to inform them that they are safe. Photo credit: CICR/KOKIC, Marko.

Long known for its work in the world’s most devastated regions, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is now developing a reputation for pragmatic and thoughtful use of technological tools, from SMS messaging to mapping tools and open-source software. In a recent discussion with OTI, Robert Whelan, a communications delegate for the ICRC, talked about how the Red Cross uses the different technical tools available to today’s aid workers to further its goals in some of the most dangerous, impoverished, and remote regions of the globe.

The ICRC is the oldest branch of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Founded in 1863 to improve medical assistance on the battlefield, the ICRC has evolved from a five-person committee into an international authority, anchoring humanitarian and disaster relief efforts in roughly 350 conflict zones worldwide. Often operating on the ground in areas where other aid organizations will not go, the ICRC works closely with distressed populations. In particular, the organization focuses on ensuring civilian safety and family reunification, and providing universal access to food, clean water, and medical care, among other vital services.

Like many aid organizations, the ICRC has incorporated new technology into its work in recent years. The ICRC does not use technology as a substitute for human interaction, but rather as a tool for enhancing workers’ ability to understand the needs of local populations, distribute information, protect and assist people. The ICRC also uses technology to establish remote presences in inaccessible or prohibitively dangerous regions, such as certain parts of Somalia.

Understanding Existing Human and Technological Capabilities in Crisis Zones

Before moving into a new area, the ICRC generally conducts a needs assessment, which helps the organization get a sense of the local population, existing infrastructure, and challenges in a given location. It also assesses available technological tools by looking at cost, accessibility, and alignment with the organization’s fundamental focus on proximity, Whelan explained. Communications technology can be critical in helping the ICRC carry out an assessment more quickly and thoroughly than was previously possible, which increases efficiency and shortens the time between ICRC’s arrival and the beginning of aid delivery.

For example, in Walikale, Congo, the ICRC has implemented a project to expand and repair the water supply system, which has suffered greatly due to the sustained conflict in the North Kivu province in recent years. Before beginning construction, the aid workers needed to understand the population distribution, which helped determine where to lay pipes, dig reservoirs, and deliver water. So the ICRC collaborated with OpenStreetMap volunteers to mark roads and buildings on satellite images and create an accurate map of the area.

Strategic use of technology also requires assessing the technological capacity of a particular population and identifying the appropriate channels of communication. In countries where smartphone use has not yet become commonplace, for example, the ICRC uses basic “feature phones” and SMS. Even in very poor, isolated, and inaccessible parts of the world, cell phones are increasingly ubiquitous, and people in these areas know how to use SMS and are willing to spend a significant portion of their income on mobile phone services. Whelan says this makes cell phones and text messages perfectly suited to providing “information as aid,” which can save lives even before aid workers can deliver food or water.

In 2010, the ICRC used SMS messages to remind residents in southern Kyrgyzstan that aid workers were deployed throughout the country and that they should be protected during the period of unrest, Whelan said. In numerous war-torn countries around the world, the ICRC has also provided members of separated families with access to mobile phone, satellite phones and online tools to help them reestablish contact with their loved ones.

Consistent with its overall approach to technological deployment, the ICRC has worked with OpenStreetMap, been influenced by "crisis-mapping" applications like Ushahidi, and used “bounded” crowdsourcing, allowing vetted users to contribute data to map areas such as Haiti, Kyrgyzstan, and Ethiopia. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a vital technology, says Whelan, but “like SMS, it’s just a tool, not the solution in itself.”

Drawing Best Practices from ICRC’s Experience

The lesson in the ICRC’s use of technology is a simple, yet often overlooked, point. The range of technologies available to today’s Red Cross workers are just new additions to their arsenal, meant to enhance, not replace, traditional techniques. Successful application of technology is dependent on the judgment of the people who use it, Whelan emphasized, and their ability to deploy tools strategically, in a context-sensitive manner. For the ICRC, this means using technological tools to increase on-the-ground capacity and supplement traditional forms of aid with “information aid” that allows the organization to more effectively assess and meet the needs of the communities it serves.

As the Open Technology Institute continues to develop the open-source networking tool Commotion, designed to facilitate communication in crisis zones, the tried-and-true methods of organizations like ICRC continue to inform our approach. Application of technological interventions requires considering three distinct, but related elements: overall objectives or goals, the technical performance of the tools, and the on-the-ground knowledge of how the tools will be used in practice.

A screenshot from openstreetmap.org of Walikale showing the complete crowdsourced map information, including key water pipes and other points of interest. © ICRC

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